What’s in a Polity?

A Review of Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity. ed. C.O. Brand and R. S. Norman (Broadman and Holman, Nashville TN: 2004)

This book is about five different views of church polity written from proponents of each view who give an apologia for their views. In addition, which I really liked, each proponent critiques the other’s views in a section after each chapter. The five different polities are:

(1) The Single-Elder-Led Church (Congregational) – Daniel Akin

(2) The Presbyterian Church Government – Robert L. Reymond

(3) The Congregational-Led Church – James Leo Garret, Jr.

(4) The Bishop-Led Church (Episcopal or Anglican) – The Very Rev. Dr. Theol. Paul F. M. Zahl

(5) The Plural-Elder-Led Church (Congregational) – James R. White


The book is obviously heavily weighted with congregational models, where the congregation decides on some level what should be done in the church either by voting on everything or at least in selecting leaders. I suppose these different polities make up the bulk of protestant churches in America, but I don’t really know.


So, in reading through the book I was wondering how important is polity, how and why do some churches do things one way and others another, and what does the Bible emphasize in comparison?


How important is polity? I had just read Viola’s Reimaging Church prior to the Perspectives book and from Viola one gets the feeling that polity really isn’t that important at all, it’s about Christ working in and through the body in a relatively unstructured, organic way. In the Perspectives book, the importance of polity varies between the authors with some arguing that there really is no set polity doctrine in the Bible, just principles to follow (1, 3, and 4), and therefore is flexible and may be highly influenced by tradition (as in the case of the Bishop-Led model) and others argue it is much more clearly defined in Scripture (2 and 5) and therefore should be followed accordingly, if not rigidly. All the authors also seem to agree that Biblically “epsikopos” and “presbyteros” (terms for overseer or bishop and deacon in the Bible, respectively) are essentially referring to the same position, the former referring to the ministry (overseer or shepherd) and the latter referring to the position/character of the individual. Even Zahl (Bishop-Led) states that there are essentially two orders of ministry: deacons and presbyters, with the third level (episkopos) sounding more like an advanced presbyter rather than a Biblically based position.


Perhaps the best way to go about this report is to critique the views in what I believe to be their degree of being off-the-mark.


The view which I think is most off-the-mark is the Bishop-Led view of Zahl. His was probably the most readable and entertaining chapter of the whole book and I do appreciate is own critique of the foibles of Anglicanism and Episcopalians throughout history and even their bulky, stuffy, if not stuck form of polity. He argues that the BL view is good for the well-being (benne esse) of the church but does not define its essence (esse). I guess this is the case because it upholds tradition and enables people to have some form of humility because the service is “vertical” and not “horizontal”. Even if the teaching sucks you can get something out of the rest of the service. I was surprised that he didn’t make a greater appeal to apostolic authority (which the Catholics do). He did state that “In the bishops unique ordaining power lies the validity of the church: its “apostolic succession” going back in one unbroken line to the apostles…” (p. 228). Also, in the same section that the church’s catholicity is safeguarded in the three-fold order (Bishops – Prebyters – Deacons) through preaching the Word of God and administering the two Biblical sacraments (Baptism and Communion). However, it wasn’t a very big plea. It seems to me that this is the only argument for this position, albeit a bad one. Perhaps that is why he didn’t make much of it and focused on how the Bishop-Led is good for the well-being of the church and does not constitute its essence. But that doesn’t leave me with much. How is the church going to impact the world if this is all there is (Matt 16:18)? It seems like the BL church is just going to fade away. I thought it fascinating that Zahl, apparently worried about this too, ends his chapter by praying for a “new John Wesley” to emerge again and shake things up.


The next most off-the-mark approach in my view was the Presbyterian model. Reymond was the most authoritative and forceful in his arguments of all the authors. He absolutely feels like Scripture has laid out a definite pattern for church government in the form of different levels of presbyters (or courts of presbyters) from the local to the universal church. He claims this is clearly the Biblical position. He did make a big deal about the need for connection between different local churches based on the interconnectedness seen in the NT (e.g., visits and oversight exerted by Paul and others in Acts and epistles). His main argument for ruler ship by a court of presbyters only comes from Acts 15 and Gal 2, a single Biblical event. He spends over a quarter of his chapter on this event and its nuances as the prototype for all intra-church interaction. The Antioch presbytery sent Paul and Barnabas to the Jerusalem presbytery to sort out the Gentile/circumcision thing, the different presbyteries debated the issue, they came to consensus and drafted a letter to be sent to all the churches of which Paul capitulated in his 2nd Missionary Journey:


“In sum, Presbyterians believe that the New Testament teaches in a schematic way ecclesiastical “connectionalism” between local churches, presbyteries, and a general assembly because they see it being lived out by the church in Acts 15!” (p. 109)


Now, there is much to take issue with on this interpretation including what appears to be a formal importation of modern day Presbyterian-speak and polity into the early church as well as how much Paul capitulated to all that was laid out by the Jersualem church (at least the meat sacrificed to idols part). But I’m not going to get sidetracked. It seems to me that the most difficult aspect of this argument is that one is basing an entire doctrine on this one passage. He does argue that there needs to be a visible and universal unity in the church (Jn 17:20-21; 1 Cor 12; Eph 2:14-16; 4:3-6; Phil 2:2; Col 3:12-14 etc…); however, most of those passages are addressed to local churches and the basis for unity is not a formal polity structure but the fellowship of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Phil 2:1,2) and the unity within the Godhead itself (Eph 4). Yes it would be nice to have a more together and unified universal church, but is that the mandate from Scripture? Clearly not (at least I don’t see it anywhere)!  Also important and profound is the idea that human institutions could really bring about the unity expressed in the passages above. I guess one could argue that God could do it if He wanted to, but He certainly didn’t make it a big deal in the NT. From the NT, the reason connectionalism was maintained was because of how God orchestrated things through the apostles. They had the authority from Christ. How can we export that beyond the apostles? I don’t read that there were really bodies of presbyters holding court, it was the apostles who seemed to be the ones orchestrating what little formal order there was (e.g., Paul with the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:17ff). In this sense, I think the BL church has more elegant (but wrong) basis to argue for a universal paradigm by appealing to apostolic authority. The Presbyterian model doesn’t even do that but instead appeals to a structure that is void of both fictitious apostolic authority and Biblical grounding and was missing for 1500 years until the Reformers picked it up. 


The congregational models appear to be the closest to what the Bible speaks to polity; however, each view is not without its own issues. For all the congregational chapters there is the understanding that the Lordship of the church is from Christ alone and not from some higher human organization, i.e., a greater independence and self-sustaining character than the other two views.

  • The emphasis of Garret (Democratic Congregationalism = DC) was on the passages that demonstrated where the church decided things, e.g., church discipline (Matt 18:20, 1 Cor 5/2Cor 2), the selection of the first deacons in Acts 6, the sending of Paul and Barnabas by the Antioch church in 1 Cor 13 and Acts 15:22 where the “entire church” chose Judas and Silas to go with Paul and Barnabas. However, that is about as far as Garret goes. What of leaders? Is everything to be decided democratically? The NT certainly affirms the need for elders/overseers (1 Tim 3 and Titus 1). Aiken points out in his critique that Garret has “no mention, much less interaction, with the crucial text on pastoral leadership such as 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:7, 17”, which I concur was severely lacking in this chapter.
  • White advocated for plural eldership which is the polity I would most agree with. He makes a case for the sufficiency of the local church and also a disclaimer that this does not mean that local churches should interact, seek council, etc… with other local churches. He argues that Acts 15 (contra Reymond) was a unique event. Plurality of elders is pretty clear in Scripture (Acts 14:21-23; Titus 1:5; Acts 20:17ff, Phil 1:1). Interestingly, he seems to ignore all the congregational passages brought out by Garret.
  • Akin argued for the Single Elder Congregational model. I appreciated his broad use of Scripture to argue for Congregationalism[1] and for the concept of Elder/Overseer[2]. His point that “… congregationalism undergirds the New Testament pattern of church government prevents churches past or present from being locked into some type of ecclesiastical strait-jacket.”(p. 40) was very insightful. Actually, his argument for the Single Elder position was based more on the idea that the Bible is flexible on this and that there are circumstances that warrant it… not that it is the way it should be all the time. He argues that it was probably necessary in some house church situations. That the “Pastor-teacher” role of Eph 4:11 is geared toward the local church, whereas apostle, prophet, and evangelists were not? The pastor-teacher being what many refer to as “senior pastor” today. This seems to be a case of importing today’s polity into the first century. He then goes on to discuss how a senior elder (pastor) among elders is similar or at least a variation of the single elder position and uses Moses (not in NT though), Peter (first among the three), and James (Jerusalem church) as examples of senior elder/pastor types in the Bible. Certainly there are probably cases where a one leader is all there is (e.g., a small body) and in plural leadership one or two leaders are more strategically gifted, knowledgeable, or mature and are more influential than others. So, I could agree with his flexibility point to some extent, but the clear example of Scriptures is for there to be plurality – which should be the norm and strived for in a church.


So in sum, I thought the book to be rather stuffy. I read through Acts recently noting anything that seemed to relate to polity. What struck me were the informal nature of the church and the rather spontaneous nature of church growth. Decisions and direction seemed to come from God’s leading through visions, open doors, closed doors and persecution. How else could God lead?


Human structure seems to get in the way of God’s leadership. When we establish many levels of organization or set in stone “this is the absolute way”, it’s probably the death of that church. At least that’s what seems to be the case especially for the Bishop Led and Presbyterian models. Even the congregational models can get pretty uptight about protocol. Have we replaced visions and revelations from God with structure?


It is also evident that churches did interact with one another in Acts. It is probably a very dangerous precedent to claim complete autonomy, but at the same time the interaction is hardly structured and formal (like Presbyterianism advocates for). Unity comes from Jesus (we are the BOC through the Holy Spirit) and His mission for us, not structure.  


[1] Evidence for Congregationalism: Mat 18:15-17, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 11:22, Acts 14:27, Acts 15, 1 Cor 5, 1 Cor 6, 1 Cor 7-12, 1 Cor 16, 2 Cor 2

[2] An Analysis of the Concept of Elder Elders in NT and OT, the equivalence of Elders and Overseers in the NT (e.g., Acts 20:28), Acts 20:17-38, 1 Tim 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Pet 5:1-4, 1 Cor 16:15-16, Gal 6:6, Eph 4:11, 1 Thess 5:12-13, 1 Tim 5:17-25, In addition: Heb 13:17; James 3:1


Law and Gospel: The Reformed View

I’ve been reading the book, Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. S.N. Gundry (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI – 1996) which presents five different views of the Law and in some cases and to varying degrees it’s relation to the gospel. The authors and topics covered are:

* Willem A. VanGemeren – The Law is The Perfection of Righteousness in Jesus Christ: A Reformed Perspective
* Greg L. Bahnsen – The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel
* Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. – The Law as God’s Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness
* Wayne G. Strickland – The Inauguration of the Law of Christ with the Gospel of Christ: A Dispensational View
* Douglas J. Moo – The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View

This book is part of the “Counterpoints” series put out by Zondervan. It compares, contrasts, and critiques the views of a certain theological issue, the Law and Gospel in this case, by having leaders of different views each submit their explanation and defense of their own view after which the other authors commend or critique the defense. This is done for all five of the above authors. I find this series to be very informative and enlightening as to different views on specific theological topics or issues. Kyle McCallum also recently blogged on a book from this Counterpoints series for his LTC book report on the topic of sanctification [http://kyle.neoblogs.org].

Up to this point I have read the first two sections dealing with two Reformed positions, the classical (VanGemeren) and the theonomic or reconstructionist (Bahnsen). The former espouses to be the traditional reformed view whereas the latter is more extreme in that the view of the Law is not merely applied in the personal moral sphere but also to the political (secular government) sphere as well.

Though these guys have much to say, it seems to me that the essential view of the reformed camp is that:

a. God is good,

b. His Law reflects His morality the best if not completely (at least for us), especially in the 10 Commandments (Ex 20:2-17) which is essentially viewed as general apodictic laws that are timeless (p. 30, 53),

c. His Law still is in force (continuity of Covenantal Theology), and

d. We should or must follow the Law in order to obey God and grow in a relationship with Him.

The classical reformed view applies this to the individual believer whereas the theonomist extends this to the civil sector, i.e., the Law should be the basis for secular government in a creation where the Creator God is Ruler of all. There certainly is no argument with (a).With regard to (b), Jesus definitely interprets and expounds on the Law in order to bring out that which is most important to God: love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:37-39) and to go even further by giving a new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). More will be said on this in a future blog as we explore the other views. However, I am going to focus on (c) and (d) in this little blog.

What Part of the Law Still Applies Today?

Now, no one believes the entire Law of Moses is directly applicable today. At the very least all accept that the ceremonial (e.g., sacrificial system) has been fulfilled in Christ. This leads to one of the more confusing aspects of the reformed argument, what part of the “the Law” is “the Law” when referred to in the New Testament? Typically, the Law is divided into three sections by the Reformed school: moral, civil, and ceremonial. The classical reformed view views the civil (that applying to the government of nation Israel) and the ceremonial (circumcision, temple, priestly service, & sacrificial system) as being abrogated (p. 53). The theonomic view holds that much of the civil still applies today (Bahnsen’s article). However, one can see the difficulty not only practically but theologically as well in trying to apply theocratic-based laws intended solely for God’s select nation Israel to a secular democracy (Kaiser does a good job of pointing this out in his critique of Bhansen).

It’s pretty obvious then that deciding on what part of the Law continues on and what ends in Old Testament times is largely arbitrary. I think Moo (p. 88) cleverly brought this out in his critique of VanGemeren’s article by bringing up the issue of the Sabbath commandment (number 4 of 10). VanGermemen never did mention the Sabbath commandment but was clear that the Ten Commandments (10C) are viewed as eternally moral and binding (p.53ff.). But what of the Sabbath? Traditional reformed teaching is that the Sabbath is celebrated on the first day of the week rather than the “seventh” (as prescribed in Ex 20:11) to commemorate the resurrection. But Moo astutely points out, “worshipping on the first day of the week is not what the fourth commandment requires: It explicitly requires cessation of work on the seventh day” which is certainly not being applied. Clearly then, either the 10C are not “the eternal moral law of God” or the “eternal moral law of God” is subject to revision. Obviously the former must be true. In other words, the 10C, in their Mosaic form, were not eternally binding on all people everywhere.

The role of the Law in the Believers life

According to the reformed camp, there are three uses of the Law: (1) as a pedagogue it instructs sinners concerning the will of God, usus elenchticus (2) power to restrain us by reminding us of the consequences of our disobedience (1 Tim 1:9-10), usus politicus and (3) an instrument of the HS to teach believers to understand and do God’s will, sometimes as a ‘rigorous enforcement officer’ to bring us into conformity w/God’s will, usus in renatis or usus normativus which is considered the most important use of the law (p. 52-53). Interestingly, very little Scripture reference is given for the latter use, the role of the Law in the Believer’s life. Most of the references in this section are to Calvin’s Institutes (CI), the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), or commentators on the two. For example here is a quote from page 52 of VanGemeren’s article in Five Views:

God is Spirit, and his law is by definition spiritual. His purpose was to lift the minds of the saints before Christ from the ceremonies and institutions to himself, because only “spiritual worship delights him” [CI 2.7.1]. Moreover, the Spirit of God is the “inner light”, who works in the believers to make the law a joy. The demands of the law are such that they require a love for God and the power of the Holy Spirit: “The love of the Law thus created in our hearts by the Holy Spirit is a sure sign of our regeneration and adoption.” [Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life, 1959 p. 121]. Otherwise the law becomes a burden and unprofitable.

What then is the power of the moral law since the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? … Positively, the law has the power to exhort believers to “shake off their sluggishness, by repeatedly urging them, and to pinch them awake to their imperfection,” [CI, 2.7.14]. As such the law remains inviolable. By its teachings, admonishments, reproofs, and corrections, the law is the instrument of growth in faith and sanctification (2 Tim 3:16-17). [CI 2.7.14]

The only Scriptural reference is 2Tim 3:16-17:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. [NASB]

It doesn’t say “The Law” or “All Law”, it says “All Scripture”, i.e., all of the Bible, the revealed Word of God. This certainly includes the Law, but everything else as well. The Law certainly is good for teaching, reproof, correction and training, as is the rest of Scripture, since it contains God’s truths and eternal principles, but not as a code of ethics to be followed for the purpose of sanctification. In fact the passages in the New Testament concerning the Law focus on our getting out from under the Law and rather focusing on Christ. Consider Paul’s argument in Gal 3 through 5:

Gal 3:24-25 = “no longer under a tutor” (i.e., the Law)

Gal 4:8, “no longer a slave, but a son”

Gal 5:1-4 “It was freedom that Christ set us free… do not be subject to a yoke of slavery… if you receive Circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you… he is under obligation to keep the whole Law… severed from Christ you who are seeking to be justified by law … For in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love”.

The focus we are to have is on faith in Christ and the working of His Holy Spirit in our lives to transform us (Gal 5:5, Rom 6-8 and 12:1,2) from the inside out, not an external code to follow. Now to be fair, the Reformed camp would say they are not saying that focusing on the Law is for justification and that Paul is arguing against the legalists of his day. But where in the New Testament are we ever called to follow the Law as a means of spiritual growth? We are called to focus on the New Commandment (e.g., Gal 5:13,14; 1 Thes 4:9; Heb 13:1; 1 Pet 1:22; 1 John 3:23, 4:7) and take part in the New Covenant (Hebrews 7-10), which replaces the Old Covenant (Hebrews 7:22, 8:6, 8:13, 9:15). More will be said on the “New Commandment” and the role of the Holy Spirit in future blogs as we get into the other views.

If we don’t follow the Law will we just plunge into immorality and worldliness?

This fear is mostly brought out in Bahnsen’s article. It seems that most of his focus is on doing good and not doing bad and how necessary and binding the Law is in order to show what good and bad is. Bahnsen seems to rely on many straw-man type arguments to portray potential extremes if we don’t follow the Law. His main point throughout is that the Law is binding today as it ever was to individuals (moral part of Law) and governments (civil part of Law).

Much of his argument is to show how Paul does not mean the whole Law when he refers to us not being under law or free from law, but merely the ceremonial part of the Law. It then follows that the law (moral + civil) continues in force today. Bahnsen’s arguments are really not very convincing. For example in Rom 6:14 Paul says we are “under law”, not “under the law”. He seems to think the technical reference to the Law of Moses requires the “the” (p. 106). The lack of a definite article in Rom 6:14 indicates Paul is not referring to the law of Moses. Instead he interprets it to mean being “under the dominion of sin” (p. 107), because Rom 6 teaches us not to be controlled by sin (vs. 1-2, 6, 11-13), that we know what sin is from the Law (Rom 7:7 – note the “the”), and therefore, Rom 6:14 teaches that believers should not transgress the law and thereby sin (p. 107). Christians have the mind of the Spirit, who leads and enables them to meet fully “the requirements of the law” (Rom 8:4).

There is much to be said about this goofy interpretation. First, the “the” is very arbitrary, in fact other passages that have the “the” (e.g., Gal 2:19, Gal 3:23,24, 1Cor 9:21-22) he argues as only referring to the ceremonial part of the Law due to context? Isn’t the focus of Romans 6 showing us how we have been freed from sin through Christ? The reason we are not controlled by sin is because we are identified with His death on the cross (Rom 6:3-6, we need to “know” this), our freedom which comes through Christ’s death and our new life in Christ now that He is raised (Rom 6:4-5, 7-11, we need to “consider” this), and our presenting ourselves to Christ in faith in order to trust in His power in our life rather than our own (Rom 6:13ff) as opposed to the old way we used to live prior to coming into a relationship with Christ (Rom 6:12). And am I wrong, but isn’t the phrase in Rom 8:4 “so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” in reference to the prior verse: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” and not those “who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” in verse 4 which follows. Christ fulfilled the law in us, not us!

Another odd interpretation is that of Gal 2:19, “through the law I died to the law”, i.e., Paul died to legalism according to Bahnsen’s (p. 96). Both words in for law in Gal 2:19 are the same, nomos and both are without the definite article. Why is one one-way and the other the other-way? Moo points out this “illustrates the tendency evident in his essay: to give the word “law” a limited or nuanced meaning on the basis not of exegetical evidence but on the basis of the logic of his general position.” (p. 167)

Again, I think Moo critiqued this view well when he dissected Bahnsen’s argument into it’s simplest form (p. 170):

God’s moral law is found in the Law of Moses
God’s moral law is universally applicable
Therefore, the Mosaic Law is universally applicable.

Now it is clear that this argument works only if an “only” is supplied in the first line. For if God’s moral law is found in other than the Mosaic form, then the argument fails. Yet Bahnsen never tries to prove this “only”. And, in fact, the presence of God’s law in other than Mosaic forms seems clearly to be argued or assumed by Paul in texts such as Romans 2 and 1 Corinthians 9:21-22… This point is fundamental in my disagreement with Bahnsen. He assumes that “law of God” is equivalent to the Mosaic law; therefore to be without the Mosaic law is to be without any divine imperative and to fall into subjective and humanistic autonomy… but I see God’s moral imperatives for human beings coming in various forms: through the law of Moses, for the Jewish nation, through nature and the conscience for all human beings, and through “the law of Christ” for Christians. Theonomy is misnamed… A better name for Bahnsen’s position would be Mosonomy. (Moo in Five Views, pp. 170-171)

…. more to come on this topic as I finish the book.